PCA culture: Baptists chasing status...


Nathan wrestling last year. Click image to see blood.

My eldest son, Nathan, wrestles for a small Christian school. Wrestlers from his school can usually be distinguished at meets by their t-shirts which have Ephesians 6:12 printed on their backs, "For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places."

I was thinking about Nate's wrestling team as I read the most recent issue of the Presbyterian Church in America's By Faith magazine which focuses its "Arts and Culture" section on Briarwood Presbyterian Church's Briarwood Ballet dance ministry whose two performing companies, Ballet Exaltation and Immanuel, "perform for various schools, churches and civic organizations across the nation and world."

Which, to be honest, sounds, in parts, like a worthy program. What could be wrong, at least theoretically, with teaching young women physical grace and discipline? Of course there are potential negatives: prurience, pride, a focus on physical beauty (which could lead to further sins such as anorexia....). Yet I suspect few would dismiss this as a potentially positive ministry solely for these reasons.

But then, there are the aspirations of those who lead the program...

  • "When I dance or teach, heaven appears for a brief time... I don't know how else to describe it. It's euphoric. It's not an escape--it's a taste of the eternal that I don't get to express in any other way."

  • "Whether believing dancers are performing a 'Christian allegory ballet,' or dancing a small part in Sleeping Beauty, the gospel can be seen through them... 'God has a way of making His truth known through us... As His image-bearers, we present that truth in whatever we do.'"

  • "...one way of restoring the art of dance is for the church to 'focus on sending artists into the world instead of pulling artists out of the world. Dancers might feel that if they're not performing something with an overt Christian message, then they're not bringing glory to God. The truth is, we have the ability to glorify God in everything that we do--whether we're dancing the lead role in the New York City Ballet, or vacuuming the house.'"
Which brings me back to Nathan's wrestling team....

Yes, one can make the argument that all we do can and should be to the glory of God. But does that make all we do worthy of special church emphasis? Does the fact that we vacuum to the glory of God mean we should have "vacuuming-the-house" ministries in our churches? Should vacuuming-the-housers display their skills to the glory of God in Sunday morning worship?

Or, to be more realistic... Wrestling is a recurring Scriptural motif. Rachel wrestles with Leah. Jacob wrestles with God. We wrestle with principalities and powers. The agony of athletic competition is a common Biblical metaphor for faith.

Is there any reason a performance of Sleeping Beauty is more to God's glory than a wrestling meet?

So why no PCA wrestling ministries? And what is there to prevent us from placing a wrestling mat at the front of our sanctuaries and holding wrestling matches during worship "to the glory of God?"

Ah, but there's this.... Wrestlers bleed on the mat. Some cry when they lose. There are injuries. It's not all frills and bows and sweet short dresses. It's masculine, dirty, hard, cutthroat competition.

So why does By Faith focus on the ballet ministry of a flagship PCA church? Why such emphasis on the fine arts in PCA publications and web sites? Why so much glowing attention to painting, dancing, writing?

I was interested to see an article on sports in the same issue of By Faith. It was a good article (and its final third focused on how to avoid having devotion to sports eclipse devotion to God).

But where are similar warnings in By Faith about art? And why do effeminate arts such as dance get such glowing attention in PCA circles while masculine arts such as wrestling get none?

My conviction, increasingly, is that broad elements within the PCA are every bit as captive to culture as seeker churches. The only difference is that the culture the PCA aspires to is upper middle class, not popular.

Which is better: rockabilly worship, drama, dudes preaching in untucked shirts and Powerpoint praise or churches with ballet ministries, fellowship hall fine art shows and a fixation upon "sending artists into the world instead of pulling artists out of the world"?

I am increasingly convinced that the best way to understand PCA culture is to view our denomination as a haven for lower and middle class Baptist families striving to become upper middle class without having to go all the way and become Episcopalian.

So is it wrong for PCA churches to sponsor ballet schools? On the one hand, my answer is, of course not--so long, as we are aware of the dangers of cultural idolatry. But on the other, I smell something of a rat in our approach to such matters....

We warn of the spiritual danger of sports--but take ballet into our sanctuary?

We speak of dancers having "the gospel seen through them" when they dance in secular ballets?

In theory, nothing prevents us from holding dance classes. In practice, I fear such training--at least in the PCA--runs dangerously close to the cultural idolatry we accuse other churches of falling prey to. We're different primarily in that it's highbrow culture we've embraced, not in our refusal to allow the world to press us into its mold.

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Comments

I don't know about a ballet program, but I'd be all for a church wrestling program. Not during worship, of course. As long as we didn't have to wear the singlets.

"Which is better: rockabilly worship, drama, dudes preaching in untucked shirts and Powerpoint praise or churches with ballet ministries, fellowship hall fine art shows and a fixation upon "sending artists into the world instead of pulling artists out of the world"?

Well, the question that comes to my mind is
"do Christians have the responsibility to own a voice in establishing the standards of what is "good art" within our culture? I believe that we do and that there are standards and that some music is better than other music. I dont' think it is a matter of taste.

Also, I am wondering by ballet is considered to be
"upper class?" And what determines "class" when it comes to the arts?

I think this is a discussion worthy of having.

Nice post David, I was in a discussion only this morning about the virtues of fist-fighting.

Actually our (PCA) church just started a boys wrestling program a couple of weeks ago, coached by the pastor, who is also a volunteer high school wrestling coach. We don't call it a "ministry," though, and I doubt we'll get a write up from By Faith.

Is this "performing" for churches occurring during worship? I can't figure out the PCA's stance on the RPW as it is. As long we're doing the me-me-me thing, I vote for swing dancing over that kind where they wave those scarves.

A.J, fist-fighting and wrestling are completely different sports. One involves seeking to damage the opponent to win (fist-fighting), the other seeks to out skill the opponent to win (wrestling). The two are completely different. Don't try to use this great post to justify your own position on thuggery.

Thinking out my response to this post suddenly made me feel like the rebel character Ren, in the movie Footloose. Anyhow,

Personally, I'd much rather watch a dance well done than two sweaty guys rolling around on a mat to see who can get cauliflower ear first.

Artists face temptations just like athletes, whether it be pride or whatever.

Appreciation for dance/arts doesn't lessen ones masculinity, but can also be a good example of ones comfort in their masculinity.

I see no problem with THE DANCE.

"Praise Ye the Lord. Sing unto the Lord a new song, and his praise in the congregation of saints. Let Israel rejoice in him that made him: let the children of Zion be JOYFUL in their King. Let them praise his name in the DANCE: let them sing praises unto him with the timbrel and harp."
Psalm 149: 1-3

"I am increasingly convinced that the best way to understand PCA culture is to view our denomination as a haven for lower and middle class Baptist families striving to become upper middle class without having to go all the way and become Episcopalian."

Why do Presbyterians ridicule Baptists in this way? I mean you are talking about the PCA? Right? But you can't help getting your digs in at the poor Baptists?

I attend many good meetings/conferences held by my Presbyterian friends. And yet, I know there will be the obligatory "joke" about benighted (read stupid) Baptists. I sit there, knowing it's coming; And I am almost never(sad to say)disappointed.

So, what gives? I really would like to know.

As a musician, I just want to respond to two points:

1)Just because in our culture we are not used to men moving the way they do in ballet does not make it intrinsically effeminate. I know that I, for one, do not have a fraction of the strength it takes to pull off with such grace a lot of the moves that male ballet dancers make.

2)While being a witness through secular art is often not overt and therefore cannot be compared to more explicit "witnessing," it nontheless can most certainly make a huge impact, particularly on the other artists involved!

I also want to concur with the point made that any artists, just like athletes, have to be especially careful of turning themselves and / or their art into an idol. I think the debate over when and where these activities are appropriate in a congregational context is one worth having. The bottom line, at least as far as I am concerned, is that God created in us the capacity for athletics and the arts for a purpose, and that purpose is to demonstrate His glory.

Dear All,
I am the pastor in CA that just started the youth wrestling program. Our numbers will grow next time because "the word" got out. We only had one tweaked nose and one mat burn on an eye. The boys (ages 4-14) loved it.
It is time that Christian churches started growing men. I've written about this on my blog (http://rongleason.blogspot.com) "Act Like Men."
There is certainly more to the total development of a Christian and I approve of the other aesthetic aspects of the Christian life. I personally love the Baroque period in art and music and would love to see us pay more attention to the arts, but not at the expense of the physical aspects of life.
Rattlesnake 6

Denise: This is part of a very old jest, which may or may not be delivered (or received) with good humor. In the fullest form I've ever heard it, it seems to date from the frontier days of the Old West, and it goes like this: Baptists are Methodists who wear shoes; Presbyterians are Baptists who can read; Episcopalians are Presbyterians who can sing on key.

David, what you wrote reminded me of something which I read in one of C. S. Lewis' essays (right now, I can't put my finger on it). In sum, Lewis was arguing against the notion that the gospel would ever be furthered by Christians sticking little spiritual doo-dads on things, appending a tract, or beginning some otherwise non-religious event with prayer. In the current setting, I think he'd rail against "Christian art" or "Christian ballet" or "Christian film" just as much as he would scoff at "Christian algebra." The latter is a nullity; but because "art" is so much more diffuse an idea than "the quadratic equation," one thinks there are Christian species of the former, while no one would think of a "Christian" species of the latter.

Instead, Lewis urged that Christians invade every field of human endeavor (math, science, ballet, whatever) and build the reputation in those fields for excelling far beyond the attainments of non-Christians. Far better for the most excellent text in physics to be written by someone who is known to be a devout Christian than for the same Christian physicist to open his lab each day with the Lord's prayer. Nothing wrong with the latter, of course; but it doesn't accomplish the same thing as writing the standard text in the field accomplishes.

Your comments on the Scriptures using athletics as a metaphor for a variety of Christian truths points to something that is largely missed by most Protestants, including almost everyone who descend from the expressly anti-sacramental streams of the Reformation (i.e. Zwingli, the Anabaptists, and a great many of the later Calvinists). That missing thing is simply this: God has so created and ordered his creation that it is riddled with thickly intertwined streams of meaning that are analogs of one another. God didn't look down from heaven and say, "Hey! I can tell them something about Myself by comparing Myself to Bread." Au contraire - God created bread, and everything that goes with it (the sowing and harvesting, the grain and its resultant forms such as flour, baking, feasting, fasting, and all the rest) precisely so that it could carry the meanings He intended them to carry. Wine wasn't just a handy material to point to because it looked like blood. Rather, it and blood were so created that one could evoke the other, not merely in the common feature of color, but in other ways as well (drinking blood, for example, as Jesus rubbed his audience's nose in it in John 6).

The fundamental iconoclasm of so many of the Reformers comes from an understandable repudiation of the corrupted sacramentology of the late Medieval Catholics. But, again, reformation by amputation left most Protestant grandsons bereft of a Biblical epistemology. And, the practical results today are the things you have described: a crude and virtual idolatry of the symbols that would otherwise serve as "ghosts of the Holy" that are supposed to haunt creation.

I'm getting to the point that my eyes begin to roll when I hear Christians talking about manliness, and what men should be.

I haven't quite put my finger on it, but it goes something like this: men are men, and women are women, whether they want to do "masculine" things or "feminine" things. Men and women are of course different, but I also believe that the discussion of those differences often leads to the belief that a man doing a "feminine" thing is wrong and for a woman to do a "masculine" thing is also wrong. I really don't see how that could be true.

If you are a man, you don't need to "act like a man". You don't need to pretend you don't have certain "feminine" character traits or that you do you have certain "masculine" character traits. You are a man. God made you a man. God is the author of your manliness, and if you are a man who enjoys dancing or cooking and dislikes camping or wrestling, then God has therefore defined manliness as including someone with your tastes.

When I hear people say "we need to let boys be boys" what they often mean is that we need to let them play rough and, to an extent, fight with eachother. Sure, great, but that also means that a boy should be allowed to be dancer or an artist without having his sexuality questioned. (Ron, I'm definitely not singling you out, I just now read your post.)

David, I guess what prompted this was when you posted a sermon by Andrew Dionne, and he referred to crying upon hearing a piece of music, and said his tears were "effeminate tears". It made me wonder, what the heck is wrong with a guy crying because he's been moved deeply by a piece of music? Are we supposed to stifle joy, to pretend that sissy music can't have a deep effect upon us? Since then I've become increasingly annoyed by this discussion.

Again, not really a developed strain of thought, just an observation.

Dear Denise,

Please believe me when I say that no offense was intended toward Baptists in my post. In fact, quite the opposite, I respect Baptists who are unashamed to be Baptists theologically and culturally. But I fear that the switch from Baptist to Presbyterian often occurs not for good theological reasons, but as the result of a desire to go upscale in culture. And while I cannot support Baptist theology, I am no foe of non-elitist culture within the Church. In fact, I would often prefer the PCA to be more like the Baptists in its rejection of elitist culture.

Your brother in Christ,

David Bayly

Dear Keith,
If men are not supposed to act like men, why did Paul tell them to in 1 Cor. 16:13?
Rattlesnake 6

What's "the Bible" have to do with anything? Just kidding. Like I said, it's not really a well-developed thought. I'd be interested in a further development of what that passage means, though. In some translations it says "act like men" and in others it says "be men". If you are a man do you really need to "act" like a man, or is it just saying that you shouldn't act like a woman?

Denise,

I should add also that the original form of the jest (and, I admit, I have seen it offered many times in deliberate cruelty) is not what I would subscribe too. My early Christian formation was among very fundamentalist Baptists, and I say without shame that 99 percent of what I learned from them I still retain. My problem with them was not their errors, but far more what they lacked, things which my love of the Bible (which I learned from them) told me should be present.

As to Episcopalians being on top of some sort of religious evolutionary process, current events within the Anglican world at large pretty well blow that idea to smithereens! And in our small town, the local Episcopalian parish had the reputation of the haven for Baptists who wanted to smoke and drink and Catholics who wanted to divorce. Surely this was unfair to some Episcopals; but not to all of them.

Keith, I agree that much of the topic of male/female characteristics provokes intense rolling of eye-balls. But, it is a conversation that still needs to be had, because Christians (so far as I can tell) haven't hammered out much that is systematic and credible in this area. You're groaning over the far misses. I groan with you. But, I do not think the discussion is pointless.

Fr. B

Dear Keith and Bill,

Thanks for helping with my explanation, Bill. And as always, your thoughts are intriguing and helpful.

Keith, I'm just launching a gross ad hominem generalization into the wind to see where it will land in calling wrestling masculine and these other arts feminine. After all, several weeks ago my son's coach called to ask if he could wrestle the varsity woman opposing him in the 215 pound weight class!

I said no. He drank a gallon of water and managed to weigh up a class.

So, you never know....

Nevertheless, gross ad hominem generalizations sometimes contain a nugget of truth.

Your brother in Christ,

David

Dear Keith,
It's saying that you should act like a man. If you want to read more, you can go to my blog (http://rongleason.blogspot.com) and read my article entitled "Act Like Men," which contains an explanation of 1 Cor. 16:13.
Rattlesnake 6

I can not speak of all Baptist churches, however if you group Baptist churches in Texas as low or middle income class, I invite you to some churches in Houston that might change your mind. The grip I have at my church is with the extra money they don't give away to those who need it. Every week in the program is printed the amount of money to meet weekly expenses ( $80,000.00) so far this fiscal year we are $506,000.00 over budget.... now that's a problem!

David
Congrats to Nate, what weight class? My son is also a freshman and wrestles @ 215lb. He placed 2nd in the Katy TX district last week. It's a fun sport, but football is THE game.

Dear Jack,

Nate's now a sophomore. He's wrestling at 215, though last year he was at 189. His record is about 19-10 this year.

It would be fun to see them wrestle against each other. But football is not among Nate's interests, much to the coach's dismay.

Is the district in Texas the first step toward state championships? Ohio has sectionals, districts and then state championships. Nate will be wrestling in sectionals in two weeks.

Congratulations on your son's second place. Excellent showing, especially for a freshman.

Your brother in Christ,

David

"It's saying that you should act like a man."

I read your post last night. I was wondering if the word "act" means to "pretend" or if it means to do things that men do. And if it means the latter, does it mean that we should all be hiking and killing bears, or does it mean that we should strive to have certain character traits, things such as strength in leadership? If so, you can still do that and not like wrestling.

Re "I am increasingly convinced that the best way to understand PCA culture is to view our denomination as a haven for lower and middle class Baptist families striving to become upper middle class without having to go all the way and become Episcopalian." This is the time-honored sociological role of Presbyterians which the PCA has now taken over from the nearly defunct PCUSA. Baptists, note: if this reflects badly on anyone, it's the Presbys, not the Baptists.
But in a more serious vein, the PCA has yet to measure up to the "senior denomination" in certan areas of specialized ministry. Years ago, in the upstate New York presbytery to which I belonged, a brother rose on the floor to mention that our longest-serving (in that presbytery) member had faced an important challenge when first ordained and installed: "What is the correct way to mow the lawn accoridng to the Word of God?" The young pastor was equal to the challenge. He noted that there is no reference anywhere in Holy Scripture to rotary mowers or, indeed, rotary anything else. On the other hand, we do read twice of people or things that "reel to and fro" (Ps.107 & Isa 24). Plainly, therefore, the reel mower, preferably hand-powered, is the divine choice. And Roger, it seemed, had adhered to this pious system of landscape management throughout his ministry. At this point a henchman wheeled in a brand-new hand-powered lawn mower as a gift to the pastor. Now, tell me, has anyone in the PCA yet established a lawn-mowing ministry?
I thought not.

Well, interesting blog. Two comments , I was raised conservative Baptist in a midwest upper middle class community and I never wanted to be an Episcopalian... and 2, the comment about the ballet dancers being anorexic. Guess you have not been around wrestling when kids are trying to cut weight by not eating and sweating it off with rubber suits. I hope this is not considered Manly. Well anyway, I think it is a good sport for your son . He looks like he is enjoying it. Suzi

"We've aped the Episcopalians to the extent we could afford it."

-Dr. Hughes Oliphant Old last year at a worship conference held in St. Louis speaking on church architecture (but it could be applied to many things)

Hi David,

Interesting post. Between the post and the comments, there are many issues worth discussion, but regarding ballet in the worship service, I think we need to ask what the church worship service is supposed to be. If ballet is worship, who's to say that gymnastics isn't or, as in your example, maybe wrestling is worship. One problem with this kind of thinking is that, even if the one performing this "art" is worshiping, the rest of us are just spectators, unless just watching someone else worship can be defined as worship.

Another thought; is the role of the church supposed to be like a club, where whatever interests people have, the church has it's own corresponding program. I'll admit I don't have this all figured out yet, but I have this gnawing feeling that something's wrong here.

Regarding Keith's comments, I must say that I've had the same thoughts. While I abhor the feminist rhetoric that all that's male is evil, it seems that we don't all agree who's a REAL man and who's a sissy.... I, for one, have never had the least interest in sports, but I can fix anything I can get my hands on, and have always figured any man who can't change his own car tire on the side of the road must be less than manly. On the other hand, I love to cook (and eat!). I don't think any of these things completely define manhood.

Pertaining to the less-than-cultured Baptists vs the highbrow Presbyterians, I suspect that this a regional observation. Around my small midwestern town, some of the Baptist churches definitely fall into the "yahoo" class, (not the one I go to!), but the reason I tend toward Presbyterian churches has more to do with the more scholarly treatment of theology that I've observed in Presbyterian churches than with a desire to "move up" culturally. I also think the reformation-era music used in some Presbyterian churches is better, not because it may be more culturally refined, but because there's some real meat to a lot of those hymns, as compared to some of the mindless stuff being sung at many Baptist churches.

Now, if only Presbyterians didn't believe in infant Baptism, I'd join 'em.........

Dear Suzi,
While it can be true about wrestlers cutting weight, we now have a program in CA that prohibits them cutting too much weight. The wrestlers ungo a supervised body fact analysis before the season begins. They are told--and it is also recorded--what the lowest amount they can lose is. If they coach makes them wrestle below that weight class the wrestler is DQ'd (not Dairy Queened!) for the remainder of the season.
My youngest, Hans, was 171 champion twice and I insisted that he wrestle "up." He was naturally 168 with 5% body fat. I've got that much in my little finger! Anyway, I encourage my wrestlers to let the Lord's natural growth in their bodies determine which weight class they wrestle in. I do, however, push them so that they lose their "baby fat."
Have a great weekend!
Rattlesnake 6

Quote: "Christian algebra." ... is a nullity. ... no one would think of a "Christian" species of [algebra].

You think so? Just get an A Beka math book (or many other home-school and Christian school curriculum math books) and see what Christian math looks like.

If Moses has 3 apples and Rahab has 4 apples, being good Christian siblings they will give all their apples to their brother Zechariah who has none. Why will they do this? Support your answer Biblically. Extra Credit: How many apples will Zechariah have?

****
"It's saying that you should act like a man."

I read your post last night. I was wondering if the word "act" means to "pretend" or if it means to do things that men do. And if it means the latter, does it mean that we should all be hiking and killing bears, or does it mean that we should strive to have certain character traits, things such as strength in leadership? If so, you can still do that and not like wrestling.
****

Keith, I'd say neither "pretend" or "do things men do" is quite right. It's saying men should do the things men were created to do. It isn't that we are pretending to be men. As you already pointed out, we are men, and there is no need to pretend. Nor is it simply saying to do what men do though. If it was, today that would mean I would have to be either a mook (see a definition here: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/cool/tour/tour2.html) or a "momma's boy". (For a variation on this theme see this article on wimps and barbarians: http://www.claremont.org/writings/crb/winter2003/moore.html)

Instead, it is calling us to do the things that men ought to do. If you look at the instructions for men and women in 1 Timothy you get the idea that there are certain things that men are called to do and certain things that women are called to do. The problem is that our culture is training us into a false dichotomy. Either men are to be brutes, or better yet, they are to be women. We are taught to value men who have the character traits that women are called to have in the Bible. And this is accomplished starting at the age of 2 by giving boys dolls instead of trucks. It is accomplished at the age of 12 by discouraging boys from keeping score during the soccer game they are playing.

It is accomplished at the age of 16 by encouraging boys to develop their gift of singing by leaving him under the "best voice teacher around" who just happens to shake your hand with a limp wrist and speak with a slight lisp. It is accomplished at the age of 24 by encouraging men to pursue the profession of opera that they have poured their time and money (actually, still debt at that age) into training for, despite the extremely high rate of homosexuality, the knowledge that he is tempted by said sin, and that he will be travelling, lonely, and far from his Christian family. It is accomplished at the age of 40 by expecting a father to have no interest in or interaction with his children.

Like it or not, our culture is encouraging us boys to be girls, and we have to conteract that by searching out what it means to act like a man. For what it's worth, I don't like wrestling either... :-)

So now we know you're not a real man, Joseph. When you're ready to wrestle on the beach with your brother your dad and I will let you into the ranks.

Love,

David

I appreciate your post, Joseph, and you had me up until the opera part. I just can't imagine why a Christian man would abandon opera simply because there are sinners in the operatic world. Running from your God-given talents because there are gay people in that field seems to be, well, less than manly.

(Also, I actually like wrestling, and I would have wrestled back in high school had it not been for the, ahem, apparel.)

I think (or at least I hope) you misunderstood me. I was saying that it is of utmost importance for a man who is tempted by homosexuality to remove himself from the danger of pursuing a field where that temptation will be increased 10 fold while at the same time removing him from the support and accountability of a local congregation by requiring continuous travel. There is no question that a decision to not pursue your trained profession would be foolishness in the eyes of the world. We are called to just that--foolishness.

That said, I think I would be willing to argue that there are professions that Christians should not be involved with because of the bad witness it would be to others given the well-known sinfulness involved with the business. An example might be owning a chain of liquor stores around a college town that makes the majority of its money off enabling the sinful desires of the young (and not so young) in the town to be acted upon.

Yes, I did misunderstand you. Thanks for the clarification, and I agree.

"As His image-bearers, we present that truth in whatever we do." No, not in "whatever we do." Much of what we do is disobedient and sinful. In fact, ALL of it is corrupted by our sin. It's OK to dance OR wrestle. But it is the Word that tells us which dancing and which wrestling, or in what respect our dancing or wrestling, is faithful. What too many of these "ministries" say, in effect, is "because I find it" exciting or fulfilling, or whatever, therefore it is godly. That is about as heretical as you can get.

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